Stew reminded him of home. Potatoes, carrots, and onions drifting into the air, stretching for what felt like miles. Some found it unpleasant, but he found it homely. He sat at the table, Senevia staring at him all wide-eyed and Cateline drifting between the two.
The matron was composed, but she still managed to shoot him looks that made him shudder. Joseph was rather clueless of his wife's adoration of him, but that didn't bother Varin all that much. With that temper, he would be next week's beef stew. If he was going to be chased out by an angry husband, he'd rather it be in the heat of an affair he partook in. While Petunya was a lovely woman, she was not to Varin's taste. Her nose was far too long and pointed, almost mimicking that of a witch. She even had a mole to the left side of her nostril.
"Lord Varin," Senevia's tiny voice chimed in, "where have you been?"
"At Lighthelm, Senevia. Where else?" Varin smiled at her, setting his bowl down.
"Is that where Cateline went?" she asked, turning her large, blue eyes to Cateline.
Varin watched as his newest acquaintance shifted in her seat, her bowl half-eaten. He cocked his head and snickered inwardly at her discomfort, she was like a fish out of water.
"It is, Senevia. They took me in with open arms."
Senevia smiled a big, toothy grin. She had a gap between her two front teeth, a laugh so adorable filling the air as she nodded. Sometimes, he wished he could be inside that head of hers. Such mischief and energy.
"You know, Lord Varin and Cateline, I want to attend Lighthelm one day."
Joseph coughed, not paying mind to cover his mouth. "A fool's dream, Senevia."
Varin looked at Joseph through his lashes, an eyebrow arched. He dared not to contest the father, for his temper was far too risky. Suddenly, he understood why Cateline mentioned that the man had waved a cleaver at her. That was on par with Joseph's tantrums. Varin turned his attention to Cateline, wondering why she borrowed one of Petunya's dresses in the first place.
To be fair, it wasn't like Varin found her in normal circumstances either. She was being attacked by two men outside the tavern, with their big, meaty, and greasy hands wrapped around her like she was that day's slaughter. It still made his stomach churn. The fact that he watched for so long from the Tavern window without stepping in made him cringe, but there was no sense in obsessing over that. He managed to get her to safety, nonetheless.
"So, I understand you let Cateline borrow one of your lovely gowns," Varin said and looked at the matron. The way her eyes lit up at his attention made him smile, although it was more so out of humor than glee.
"I did, the poor girl was soaked to the bone."
"Soaked?" Varin asked, stare flickering to Cateline with worry.
"And speaking nonsense." Joseph chimed in, burping after a final swig of his stew. "I still don't trust the likes of her."
Cateline's mouth parted, clamping it shut swiftly. Varin watched as she clenched her hands into fists, teeth-gritting. She avoided Varin's stare, but he was sure she was aware.
"Joseph, I will not tolerate that tormenting of this poor girl." Petunya shook her head, standing with an exasperated sigh. She collected the empty bowls and brought them to a bucket full of dirty dishes. Hoisting that up, she walked out the back door. "Do you not have potatoes to harvest, Joseph? Leave the poor girl to be."
Joseph's nostrils flared as he watched his wife leave the home, his beady little eyes drifting over to Varin. He knew this man wanted to beat him to a pulp—without rhyme or reason, too—he simply stood and walked toward their living quarters. Then, there were three.
"I apologize," Varin said to Cateline quietly. In the corner of Varin's eyes, he could see Senevia's head bouncing between the two of them. "The Liverstone's are a delightful family, hard-working and ambitious, but they are—"
"It is fine." Cateline cut him off, her stare still set on the wooden table. It was not a rude interruption, but one of defeat. She was a beauty, truly, with such dark waves falling past the curve of her breast. Pale skin that glistened, and eyes the color of ice, she wowed him. That said, he could tell she was trouble. It wasn't clear how, but his intuition wasn't often wrong.
"Varin," Senevia whispered and leaned forward, "I have a question."
Leaning forward to mimic her, he smiled and whispered right back. "What is it?"
"Can you teach me more of that swordsmanship you showed me a week ago?"
"Now, Senevia, I didn't know you wanted my head on a stick."
"Lord Varin!" Senevia exclaimed, giggling echoing across the walls. "I do not!"
"Hmm, well that is what will happen if your father finds out."
"Pretty please! If I learn to fight, I can defend you from my unruly father."
"My," Cateline said beneath her breath, "this girl sure knows how to convey an argument. How can you say no to that?"
Varin looked at Cateline with pursed lips, chewing on the inside of his cheek in contemplation. Nodding, he accepted after a moment of hesitation. "Fine, fine. But I'll need somebody to watch for that greasy old man, we can't have him catching us."
Cateline sat on a freshly cut stump, the wood still hard and rough. To her right was the base of the tree cut into evenly distributed segments. To the left was a horse stable, neighing filling the otherwise quiet air. They were on the outskirts of the village, a dirt path leading way toward a large patch of forestry, water following the shore with serene sloshes of waves and wind.
Senevia sat crisscross alongside Cateline as Varin spoke with a merchant momentarily, their laughter ringing to life every few minutes. Her ears perked up with each sound, finding it calming to hear such sounds of joy.
"Cateline," Senevia said, knocking her from her reverie, "you never told me where you came from."
Turning her stare down to the child, she smiled back at her. Senevia had this aura around her that should make anybody happy, with those puppy dog eyes and passionate expressions. Cateline wondered if she had a poker face, or if she was merely an open book. She was beginning to assume the latter.
"Why must you know?"
"You seem different," Senevia said with a shrug, "disregarding the fact that you floated to my backyard, better off dead. Did you know that is what my father said?"
Cateline cleared her throat, grasping at the fabric of her skirt. "I am sure he did."
"That isn't the point, though. I am just curious."
"Well." Cateline sighed and leaned forward. "I come from another kingdom, however far away, and it is true when I tell you I do not know how I got here."
"What kingdom was it again?"
Senevia nodded, mouthing the name over and over again before speaking up. "Axulran! That sounds exciting. You said it was snowy, correct? I love the snow."
"Our grass is permanently frosted with ice, yes."
"What does your family do in Axulran?"
Cateline paused, turning to look at Varin who was still preoccupied with the merchant. Nobody knew that she was royalty outside of Leolina, Jaspar, and those twins. If she had it her way, those twins wouldn't know a god damned thing about her. It was dangerous, especially with her family name. With a father like King Airen, she could never be too careful.
Then again, this is a child, Cateline told herself, she probably holds little interest in the politics of faraway kingdoms.
Letting out a shaky sigh, Cateline stared into the curious gaze of this child and nodded her head. "Can you keep a secret?"
"I have kept many!"
"I am a Princess. King Airen of Axulran is my father, and I have two brothers. My eldest, Terrence, is to take over after my father passes, and my youngest is second in line."
"A Princess!" She exclaimed.
Cateline's eyes grew wide in fright, pressing her finger against the surface of her lips to remind Senevia to be quieter. Senevia mimicked this on her own mouth before giggling.
"You are lying to me, Cateline. What is it like?"
Cateline's lip twitched. For anybody else, this question would be easy. Naivety was not necessarily a trait she was fond of, but it was one she knew she held. It was natural, she had never left the political district in her entire eighteen years.
Her life was seen from a castle. She would peer over the large, stained glass windows, watching over the commerce district. From where she stood and grew, she saw peasants the size of ants running around and doing whatever they did—mundane tasks Cateline found interesting beyond belief.
Her father made sure she stayed hidden.
Although that pendant concealed her magic, she was treated like an outcast. The day she turned eighteen, her father began searching for a suitor to get her out of the kingdom. Now that she was gone, she wondered if her father was worried, or if he was ecstatic.
With a trembling lip, Cateline nodded. "I wouldn't trade it for the world, Senevia. But you must keep this hush, alright?"
"Your secret is safe with me," Senevia said and zipped her finger over her lip before smiling. "Princess Cateline!"
Smiling sadly, she turned when Varin stopped beside them with a wooden sword in his hand. "Senevia, you ought to tell Nathanial thank you. Do you realize he's given this to you for free?"
"For free?" Senevia cheered and jumped, snatching at the sword desperately. Varin held the sword above her head, tsking at her.
"If I give this to you, you must hide it from that greasy father of yours, understood? I will not have myself impaled over a wooden toy."
Nodding quickly, Senevia accepted it as soon as he dropped it into her hands. Varin turned to Cateline and arched a brow.
"I am assuming you will keep a watch?" he asked.
"Consider me your personal guard."
Varin smiled, nodding appreciatively before setting his pouch down. As they walked away, towards a tree along the shoreline, she tore her gaze away and looked at Varin's belongings. The bag that once held a plentiful pile of coin now looked limp. Cateline loosened the sloppily tied bow just enough to take a peep inside, seeing only three coins remaining. Studying the wooden sword Senevia held unconfidently in her hands, it became apparent that Varin did not use his coin to buy a few rounds of mead, but instead on that little girl to teach her a thing or two.